Saturday 24 August 2019

The Parisian: Substantial debut challenges our idea of readerly consistency

Fiction: The Parisian

Isabella Hammad

Jonathan Cape, hardback, 576 pages, €20.99

Ambitious: Isabella Hammad's The Parisian is provocative, testing and magnificently risky
Ambitious: Isabella Hammad's The Parisian is provocative, testing and magnificently risky
The Parisian

Sophie Ratcliffe

If there's one thing that makes reviewers throw shade, it's a much-anticipated debut from an author under 30. A debut novel brings a particular kind of opportunity. Any response betrays our own tendencies to make assumptions, our desire to categorise a book or writer, to size them up - or cut them down. An encounter with a first novel - particularly a substantial first novel like this - is a rehearsal for life.

Isabella Hammad's The Parisian is concerned with the way we assume, label, and form the characters of others. It opens as Midhat Kamal, an "Arab onboard the ship to Marseille", arrives in Montpellier. It is the autumn of 1914. Midhat, Hammad's hero, has left his home in Palestine to study medicine, and is taken in as a house-guest by an anthropologist called Dr Frederic Molineu. All goes well until Midhat finds he has become an unwitting scientific specimen. Discovering a cache of notes in Molineu's bureau about the workings of the "Primitive Brain", Midhat heads off to Paris leaving behind a broken heart in the form of Molineu's daughter, Jeanette.

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Parisian life is mainly prostitutes, bookshops near the Rue de l'Odeon and late-night chats over cognac, and after a while, Midhat returns to the family clothing business. He was only in Paris for three years, but back in Nablus, he becomes known as the "Parisian", and this naming is part of the novel's broader argument about the ways characters are formed and fixed.

This interest in identity is crystallised in a discussion between Molineu and his daughter about "consistency of character", and borne out by the novel's genuine commitment to the question of what makes a character consistent over time, and what a person consists of in the first place.

Such ideas are explored in its intimate relationships. Hammad's narrator notices, for instance, the way a man's "gesture" gradually "harden[s] into full-blown mannerism" - and gives a tender account of the growth of intimacy in an arranged marriage: "desire is tangled with an awareness that other people had seen their spouse, had seen and judged what they now saw".

These ideas are also played out on the stage of global politics. In mapping the development of the Palestinian and Syrian national movements over a critical period of 20 years, The Parisian asks its readers to reflect on the question of what a country consists of, and how it might, with time, come to characterise itself.

Weighing in at more than 550 pages, complete with maps, a timeline and a list of characters, the book also challenges our idea of readerly consistency. Hammad has said, in interview, that her ambition was, in some ways, to recreate the temporal experience of reading the 19th-century novel. In this sense, she succeeds. The Parisian encourages one to form attachments to characters, to miss them, to change with them, to change one's mind and, at chewier moments, to wish one had never met them in the first place.

The question of to what, and to whom we give our time, pulses through the book. By casting a number of her characters as academics, Hammad gets to deliver seemingly undigested swathes of history in the form of books about "The Historical Fate of Turkey" or debates about a United Syria. These information drops feel a touch contrived, unsettling our readerly belief. But for the most part, the narrative voice is a lucid and convincing presence.

The women who surround Midhat on his return to Nablus, particularly his grandmother, are wonderfully done. The sly metafictional nods to the world of L'Education Sentimentale (Hammad's Frederic Molineu seems to reach back to Flaubert's Frederic Moreau) are rather glorious too.

If the novel is a deliberately baggy Victorian monster, then its message is tight and current. In placing the triple-decker frame over the world of the Middle East, Hammad asks some fascinating questions about the way narratives have shaped, and continue to shape, our world.

The fact that The Parisian is a fictionalised version of Hammad's own family history also makes it an unusual writing experiment, landing somewhere between deep autobiography and radical autofiction. As Midhat attempts to woo and marry the woman who will become Hammad's great-grandmother, there's a delicious sense of high stakes. One false move and our novelist will disappear.

Provocative, testing and magnificently risky, this is an author writing for her life.

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